We begin with a sharply dressed black couple entering an isolated neo-mid-century ranch-style modernist house that was completed in 2010 and designed by San Francisco's Jonathan Fledman. The woman, Marie (Zendaya), is dating the man, Malcolm (John David Washington). The latter is a film director; the former, an aspiring actress and recovered junky. Both are returning from the premiere of the director's first major work, the title of which is never revealed. But the black director is sure it will make his name as big as Spike Lee, or John Singleton, or Barry Jenkins. You get the picture.
But there is one big problem. Malcolm forgot to mention his partner during his appreciation speech. From this omission flows a very long night that the late Edward Albee (the greatest hack in the pantheon of American playwrights) would instantly recognize and even love: The constantly circling verbal attacks/abuses, the worthless make-up kisses, the walking around the house to blow off steam, the drama in the bathtub, the smoking, the drinking, the fighting and fighting and fighting to the break of dawn.
Marie believes her role in Malcolm's art is much bigger than he is willing to admit. She also thinks she's much smarter than him. As for Malcolm, he sees Marie in much the same light as Philip Oakey sees Susan Ann Sulley in the Human League tune "Don't You Want Me": "You were working as waitress in a cocktail bar, when I met you. I picked you out, I shook up and turned you around into someone new."
Because I cannot in all honesty recommend Malcolm & Marie (it fails to bring all of its pieces—architecture, couple, shameless evacuations, turbulent night—together), I will instead recommend a 1982 film that very successfully covers a similar territory, Kathleen Collins's Losing Ground.
Losing Ground is set in exactly the same black intellectual/artistic milieu as Malcolm & Marie. In Losing Ground, the woman, Sara Rogers (Seret Scott), is a professor of continental philosophy, which in the US lands you in the English Department, because the US's Philosophy Department remains silent about that existentialist, structuralist, deconstructionist stuff. Sara's husband is a semi-accomplished painter, Victor (Bill Gunn), with big ideas and dreams. Their relationship, concerns, and lifestyle compliments those of Malcolm and Marie.
Both couples use big words very easily. They are lettered and articulate. They are also familiar with white American and white European cultural elitism. But Kathleen Collins's cultured black couple is far more interesting than the one divined by Sam Levinson, the writer and director of Malcolm & Marie. And there's a good reason for this. Though the philosophy professor in Losing Ground is equal in narrative position to the filmmaker in Malcolm & Marie, she has much greater (or more convincing) intellectual gravity than her counterpart.
Indeed, if one were to ask me which I would prefer to experience—the professor's book on "the estatic" or the director's film about a black drug addict who sounds a lot like the crack-addled mother of the boy in Barry Jenkin's Moonlight—I would pick the former.
Collins is clearly more familiar with the grain and textures of the little black world her film explores. She has been there, been in the middle of its quiet dramas, knows the extant tension of its hurtful words, and has played those jazz records, read those books, watched those films from France. Her characters are made of flesh and blood. Levinson's, on the other hand, never escape the two-dimension prison of his well-meaning script.